Wednesday, March 8, 2017


I used to look forward to weddings. I grew up with the false idol of the lonesome bridesmaid at her friend’s big day, wondering where she had gone wrong, where her big day was, emptying one libation after another. What better way to enjoy a wedding, I thought, than with someone just as crestfallen as you. Worst-case scenario: we drown our sorrows in a pool of intermingled sweat. Best-case: we grow old regaling our children with Mom & Dad’s meet-cute.
But as the nuptials came and went—my sister’s, my cousins’, my friends’—I found that I was the only one propping using the open bar to prop up a smile. After entering the reception on the arm of a groomsman, each bridesmaid broke rank and made straight for her boyfriend. And the few who were single chose to remain single. Even a night of respite from the tatters of her ambitions couldn’t prod a single woman at a wedding onto the dance floor with me. As the matrimonial parade progressed, weddings became less an opportunity and more an agony of attrition. But the Parasite always came with me.
I was dreading my younger cousin’s wedding in Baltimore. I would have gladly forgone the comely cavalcade of alumni from the Marquis of Queensbury School of Rejection. Unfortunately I’ve been cursed not only with the Parasite, but also an unshakable sense of familial obligation and a healthy dose of Catholic guilt.
The day before the wedding was the rehearsal and obligatory dinner. I greeted my cousin and the bride-to-be before the altar, and the bride introduced me to her bridal party right next to the tabernacle. The majority of the distaff reliquary was already taken, but sure enough the maid of honor was single and singularly talented to wake the Parasite. She was tall and lithe and, somehow, miraculously curvaceous. Her face was bright and bubbly with large, dark eyes that seemed fluent in the private language of your soul. The girl’s smile was a nourishing spring rain, free of patronizing falsehood. Her voice was lyrical and opened like a budding rose. I was ensorcelled, and the slow reedy crunch of vampirism filled my ears.
We chatted more at dinner. She worked in child services, a big-hearted giver who felt every blow from an abusive parent, who bruised and swelled from a harsh word. I plied her with questions, peppering her with interest, nudging her to talk ever more intimately about herself. Anything to prevent her from—
“So, what do you do?”
—from that. I’d arrived at this crossroads many times. It was where the water of opportunity fled into the serrated cracks of a dry barren waste, where the Parasite couldn’t survive. 
“Well,” I hemmed, “I’m in sales, but I’m really a musician.” I tried to reset the trajectory of conversation, redirect her to my actual interests rather than responsibilities. But passion is secondary to income, or whatever it’s supposed to emblematize, and the maid of honor would not be deterred. I had no choice but to elaborate, to spell out what was at the time my unprepossessing and uninspiring employment.
I could see the strain she was exerting in keeping the smile on her face. I could hear the tinkle of enthusiasm she belched from her well of civility. I could feel her exertion to maintain the social contract even as she began to fidget, as her feet started to lead her away from me. I made it easy for both of us, and excused myself. She could barely meet my eyes the following day through the entire wedding.
The one advantage a depressive has at a wedding is that everyone else is too busy enjoying themselves to notice your torpor. While they danced and drank, posed for pictures, testified into the video camera, laughed and celebrated, I kept company with a bottomless glass of whiskey. Not that it did much good—I was too downtrodden to drink for fun, and the few whiskeys I imbibed had little effect on me. The reception wound down, and once the house lights were up, the younger celebrants repaired to the fourteenth floor for the after party.
I went to my room on the thirteenth, the lurch of revelry thundering through the ceiling, and changed into jeans and a t-shirt. I left my phone, my wallet, even the room’s key card on the little desk in the corner. At two in the morning I walked through the hotel lobby, out the front door, and headed northwest.
As the Inner Harbor receded behind me, I made for Grove Park. I watched the city decay around me. Tenements wept from neglect and abuse. The streets bled garbage and cast-off vials. A stray dog, shrunken and near-feral, crossed me with a growl. I was strutting through a thunderdome of betrayed dreams and tactile nightmares. Good, I thought. I turned a corner and saw a group of younger black men walking on the sidewalk, heading my way. They were talking amongst themselves and likely hadn’t even seen me yet. I kept walking toward them, my chin up, my eyes glinting with defiant privilege. My every step dared them to remember five hundred years of injustice. I wanted those black men to see me as I approached and see the face of every white man who’d called them, “nigger.” I wanted them to see an arrogant pale incongruity invading their sanctuary. I wanted them to teach me a lesson. I wanted to provoke them into attacking me.
I didn’t have a death wish. I wanted an excuse to kill someone.
As we passed one another, one of them nodded my way. “How you doing?”
I nodded back, walked on, and returned to the hotel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


You won’t find the Parasite’s mark anywhere on me. It’s been holed up deep beneath my skin for as long as I can remember. It’s nothing anyone can cure. There’s no purgative I can ingest, no treatment I can undergo that will kill it. It’s as much a part of me as any other organ. It’s my capillaries, the cartilage between my vertebrae. It’s every neuron in my brain translating stimuli into one serrated thought after another. I can only stave off its effect through constant intellectual activity. I have to keep my mind racing on its wheel.
My alarm wakes me in the morning, and I only allow myself the time it takes to wipe the sleep from my eyes to indulge in kneejerk self-pity. Once I slap the alarm silent, I only leave room in my head for the task at hand. I focus on the minutiae of routine like it’s a mantra. I dress myself to a strict cadence, never wavering in rhythm, never donning an article out of turn. As the coffee brews, I use a spoon to fold my granola into my yogurt. The coffee is ready by the time I’ve finished eating. I fix a quick travel-mug and head out the door.
I used to have my morning coffee at home. I woke up early enough to sit for fifteen minutes in a comfortable chair and enjoy the roast. But the Parasite always turned my head to the kitchen table. Just large enough for two, it was nestled in the breakfast nook where the morning sun streamed through the window, carrying into my apartment visions of two lovers and the thousands of words left unspoken by shared looks that said them all. The sunlight would catch the steam from two companion cups. A duet of bathrobes and slippers would echo over the sun reflected off the tabletop. The woman’s fingertips would massage the coffee cup in her hand. She would lean across the table to kiss me, and I would lean forward and meet her halfway. It gave me headaches.
My eyes are flitting in and around the car as I drive to work. Hands at ten and two. Blinker on. Ease off the gas. Keep the distance from the car in front of you. That jogger doesn’t see me. That asshole on the tandem bike thinks he owns the road. If I turn down Church, I’ll hit that construction gridlock. I’ll take Old Cuthbert; I’ll have to contend with school buses, but I’ll keep moving. Keep the Parasite quiet.
I used to save a thousand dollars a year taking the train into work, avoiding the expense of gas, tolls, and the parking garage. I would wait at my station and not speak to my fellow commuters. I would board the train, take a seat alone, and use a book or device to help me ignore the ranks of chattering banality. I was always the first one out of my seat, lined up at the door, as the train pulled into my stop, except one morning, for no discernible reason and unbidden by any logic, I stayed seated until the train stopped.
I had never seen her before, didn’t know whether she’d boarded before or after I had. She stood right next to me on legs that could never have been forged by miles run or hours logged in the gym, but only by the elitist grace of a jackbooted deity. Her hair, long and smoothed free of renegade strands, cascaded past her shoulders. A luminous auburn, it shimmered with the threat of scorching anyone who tried to approach. She stood with arms crossed and shoulders hunched against an impending assault. Her clothes fit her like molded bronze armor, impenetrable, proud, patronized by divine favor. Her patrician nose stood at the center of a face of thorned impatience and imperturbable confidence. The next day I drove to work.
Once I’m in the office, I’m safe.  I take my time, exacting and thorough, with every duty, regardless of its importance. I script out every phone call in my head before I’ve touched the receiver. I stack my paperwork and cut my way through it with Asbergian exactitude. I take my seat at the conference table and fill the pages of my notepad with runic scribbles that only I can understand. But they contain every speck of information uttered in that meeting. Not just what the contract will entail for each department and its head, as well as me, but what each team member is thinking. The twitch at the vice-president’s mouth when he informs us of our timetable conveys his lack of confidence, and I write it down. I note our director of operations’ expected impatience by her clipped, brusque tone.
I work through my lunch break and finish my day. Back at my apartment I make my dinner. Always from scratch. The culinary arts require time, patience, and full attention. The serenity of activity continues for an hour or more. As I eat I scour the internet for more recipes, new and different challenging distractions. Inspired or not, I plan what my dinner will be the following night. I finish eating and wash the dishes by hand. I can’t remember the last time I used the dishwasher. I go to the supermarket. Large brick-and-mortar stores with heavy traffic are good for me. As I wind my way up and down the aisles, I navigate the choppy sea of thoughtless shoppers. I use their ignorance to my advantage and gauge each one as an obstacle to be methodically overcome. Once I’m back home and have put away the groceries, I take out Rickenbacker and my amp. Playing is my favorite part of the day. I’m completely absorbed. Nothing exists but the instrument and my hands. I start off with my simple warm-ups: running scales, fingering exercises, striking the current note with my right index finger as I conjure an image of my left middle finger coming down on the next note’s string just above the fret. I run through some songs: “Kulu/Speak Like a Child” by Jaco, “Sound Chaser” by Yes, whatever I’m in the mood to play provided it’s long and complex. Then I continue teaching myself whatever outsized ambition I’m chipping away at. The current compulsion is Bach’s “Air on G String.” But the day always comes to an end.
I’ve tried everything: sleeping pills—over-the-counter and prescription—booze, weed, Benadryl. I’ve tried going to sleep with music playing, with the TV on, with looped white noise and the harmonies of ecosystems. But I’ve yet to find anything that will just knock me out. I always have to contend with the chasm that spans the dousing of the lights and the arrival of slumber. I have to lie there with nothing but my mind and the Parasite.
It’s the Parasite that drives my idle thoughts like undead dogs in a zombie Iditarod. I know it’s coming before I hear it, and I have to lie there like a scared child hiding in vain from a monster that he knows will find him. First, there’s only the vague ambience amidst the dark. Then I hear it. The bright chitter of steel pincers tearing into flesh. Saliva roiling like a witch’s cauldron. A rapacious tongue sliming over mandibles. As the sound draws near, the Parasite gives flute to apocalyptic promises, not of fire and destruction and blood and ash, but of a soft, feminine hand pressed against mine. Of laughter tickled free by mutual attraction. Of eyes with a gravity that pulls me in and carries me beyond the boundaries of reason. The Parasite’s voice, so familiar and comforting, fills my surrounding darkness with impossible visions. Of a city without squalor, umbrellaed by night’s sky throbbing with stars, a full moon its beating heart, a cobblestone street hosting a man and woman, their fingers intertwined without a care save one another. Of endless fields drunk on the thick green of their tall, silken grasses, man and woman embracing each other in a perfumed rainbow of surrounding hyacinth. Of a home ensconced in an untouchable pocket universe, insulated in mahogany and teak, warmed by a fire. A home for two people as they become one. As my eyes start to fill, the Parasite invokes a name, one of many I’ve known. I shut my eyes. Cold fluid streams down my face, onto the pillow. Beneath my eyelids the name assumes the form. It straddles me, runs its hands through the hair on my chest. I feel its lips, soft and moist, brush my cheek as they approach my ear. The form whispers to me, tells me everything I need to hear, everything the Parasite knows I want. The form ululates to its phantom sentiments. The Parasite tells me to move my hand. I do, and my focus is fully on the most welcome of lies. It clings to me, loves me, and I allow myself to indulge the lie. I indulge through the grief, through the pain beneath the linen. The Parasite finishes feeding and leaves. And I lay in the darkness and cry until sleep takes me.

Friday, January 6, 2017


     Before we get started, just so you know... there is more fiction coming. Yes, I know it's been a while, but THE TRIAL OF MARCUS AURELIUS is coming out in a few months--follow me on Twitter for that announcement--so I'm back into fiction-writing mode. 
     Now, here's the ten best books I read in 2016.

It bears very little resemblance to Blade Runner, and that’s a good thing, because—blasphemy alert—I’ve always found the movie to be beautiful but boring. Philip K. Dick’s novel, however, is grimy and wondrous. The book is not just a rumination on what constitutes life, but on the intrinsic value of one life over another. It’s not enough that we think and feel, but what we think about and who we feel for. In a dystopia where people drug themselves into emotion, any emotion, and where androids are identified via a test for empathy they should not have, the simulacra of life have developed not just consciousness but a fraternity of otherness. Each android cares as much about the others as it/he/she does about it/him/herself. Roy Batty is not a snarling Rutger Hauer. He is a charismatic and committed leader exhausted by a series of difficult choices. After a book populated by humans less alive than their machines, the happy ending is a hard-learned but well-earned lesson that teaches Deckard to recognize and value life in its strangest form and most unorthodox splendor.

9) THE SPORTSWRITER (Richard Ford, 1986)
“An eloquent and stately character study, brimming with the tensions of everyday drama,” is an example of the kind of blurb that could grace the cover of the novel, but it probably wouldn’t galvanize you to take the book home. But Richard Ford’s story of a man slowly pulling himself out of a grave of despair following the death of his child and the dissolution of his marriage is why literary fiction remains the most lauded of genres. Ford’s prose, lacking showmanship and disinterested in impression, is the eye of the emotional hurricane that is wreaking havoc on his protagonist, Frank Bascombe. In the shadows of his craftsmanship, the trenches between lines, and the nooks and crannies between words, is a cosmos of subtext, the primordial soup that gives richness and immediacy to a simple, human story. Richard Ford’s characters are indelibly real, and his story is foundationally profound. This book is marvelous.

8) THE STORY OF THE JEWS (Simon Schama, 2013)
The title is a little misleading and slightly dishonest (most dogmatically absolutist titles are—don’t trust a book named “How So-and-So Saved Civilization” or “Such-and-Such Made the Modern World”). But Schama does chronicle an aspect of Jewish history that is often neglected by Jews and gentiles alike. Beginning with an exhaustive and mesmerizing examination of the oldest extant ruins of identifiably Jewish origin, Schama presents a compelling and comprehensive case that the central conflict of Judaism and Jewishness has always been the internal struggle between a belief that says, “We are Chosen, and to remain Chosen we must remain separate from the non-Jewish world,” and the contrary belief of, “We can engage with society-at-large, allow a cross-pollination of cultures, and still be Jewish.” From the fog of near-lost Antiquity to the waning days of the Middle Ages, Schama tells the story in a passionate voice filled with ebullient wisdom that will leave history buffs ensorcelled and smitten.

7) THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER (Octavia Butler, 1993)
I’ve finally acquainted myself with the work of Octavia Butler, and she has proven her bonafides as a singular artist of uncommon power. As a creator of science fiction, she has crafted a believable apocalypse-in-progress that, two decades later, appears chillingly prophetic in its accuracy and all-encompassing probity. As an African-American woman, she has plumbed the vicissitudes she’s endured to conjure a reality that is tragically too familiar. As a writer her ability to turn a phrase, erect a narrative arc, and bring to life characters we come to know as well as we would anyone beyond the pages is a feat to behold. THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER is a novel unlike any other I’ve read, but I’m hoping to find its equal in the rest of Octavia Butler’s bibliography.

6) RED SORGHUM (Mo Yan, 1986)
Thank god I discovered Mo Yan this past year. Read my original Not-a-Review here.

5) BLOOD ON THE FORGE (William Attaway, 1941)
A child of the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, William Attaway’s titanic BLOOD ON THE FORGE is an intellectual primal scream. The Moss brothers escape the Jim Crow South for the more lucrative and tolerant future promised by the North, only to find the unfamiliarity of the steel mills, the depersonalized mechanization, is more dehumanizing than the familiar marginalization of the southern farms. Attaway contrasts the blistering red and orange heat of the cauldrons with the warm, wet, fertile earth the brothers are accustomed to and take pleasure in. The fires burn down the brothers—angry, god-fearing Big Mat; sensible, responsible Chinatown; and foolish, fun-loving Melody—in a tragic conflagration that leaves each of them in the last place he wanted to be. Like NATIVE SON, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, and INVISIBLE MAN, William Attaway’s novel is about much more than the black experience, and BLOOD ON THE FORGE stands shoulder to shoulder with those other giants.

4) CALL IT SLEEP (Henry Roth, 1934)
It’s the only proper novel Henry Roth ever published, and upon reading the book it’s easy to see why it took him over forty years to write another word. Like Ralph Ellison, Roth has presented a single life with multi-faceted verisimilitude and bullseye specificity that captures an entire universe of human experience. The poor, the immigrant, the young, the neurotic, the Jewish, the abused all have their story brought to life in CALL IT SLEEP. What else can Roth say? I’m hesitant to recommend the novel to anyone but the heartiest of literary adventurers. Consider yourself warned: CALL IT SLEEP is relentlessly bleak. The prose is a fugue of tears, and the plot is a totem pole of compounded miseries, so much so that the experience of reading is largely an endurance trial. But if you’re willing to endure for the sake of majestic writing, or if you’re just a masochist of letters, this novel will leave a scar on your heart you will cherish forever.

3) THE TENANTS (Bernard Malamud, 1971)
There’s something different about Bernard Malamud. His stories are always in one way or another about Jewish identity and its concomitant pains. As a Jewish friend of mine once observed, “That’s the culture,” but unlike Henry Roth’s writing, Malamud’s does not drown me in dourness and crushing loss. There is always an ember roasting in the dark center of his work. THE TENANTS is a story about two writers; one Jewish, one black; squatting in a condemned apartment, desperate for the isolation they need to finish their purgative books. But in each other they see a world they wish included them. They feel the sting of their respective hypocrisies, and the resentment stoked between the two desperate, broken men leaves the apartment building beyond dilapidated. As bleak as the plot may be, there is still that ember burning in the black ink of every letter, and while the characters may not feel its heat, we the readers do.

2) THE POWER BROKER (Robert A. Caro, 1974)
America’s scholarly community has really dropped the ball. Every child in this country should grow up learning about Robert Moses. He was a real-life Charles Foster Kane, a man of unshakable self-confidence and unparalleled intellect who sacrificed his own soul to propitiate the god of power. Robert Caro, now the go-to authority on Lyndon Johnson, tells the epic story of how Robert Moses transformed himself from an idealistic youth dedicated to solving New York’s many social ills into the state’s unelected dictator whose aims began with getting his way and ended with crushing anyone who opposed him. Caro’s doorstop of a biography is electrifying from the first page to the last because Caro never takes the stance of either apologist or persecutor. He details how Moses’ tireless energy and blade-sharp mind built the infrastructure of modern New York as they corrupted the mechanisms of government to make Moses’ dreams a reality. Robert Moses was a character with a capital-C.

1) AUGUSTUS (John Williams, 1973)
John Williams is simply one the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century. Read my original Not-a-Review here.